I’m reading a linguistics textbook for a philosophy of language class, and there all sorts of little interesting nuggets of information here, even for the non-specialist.

I think one point is that even a cursory analysis of language reveals it awesome and bewildering complexity. When you get right down to it, language involves the infinite and regimented combinatoriality of roughly 20,000 words for the average human (and about 40,000 for Shakespeare). What this means is that we must learn rules of some sort which rank, specify, and order various sounds.

First, sounds themselves must be regimented and carefully constructed since when we talk, the demarcations of words cannot be made by pauses in speech since the pauses in the “sound stream” of a fluent speaker are either insignificant or non-existent. Just think of how when you say “I went to see a friend,” “a friend” becomes smashed together into “afriend.” A native Chinese speaker in my class told me that he finds this part of learning a new language extremely difficult.

Also, the way grammar and words are related are very complex. Take idioms such as “kicked the bucket.” In terms of meaning, the phrase functions as a single word (and this is why linguists believe that there may not be such a thing that we commonly think of as a “word.” There are only basic units of various parts of language, including syntax and morphology). In other words you don’t get the meaning of kicked the bucket by linking the meanings of kick and bucket. BUT, though the phrase functions as a single word for meaning, it still functions as MANY WORDS for the purposes of grammar. You modify the phrase to “kick the bucket” when its in the present (or really future tense). In terms of meaning, an idiom is one unit, but syntactically, it is still a complex of more basic units.

And a last strange tidbit (related obliquely to that of a universal grammar) that I found is that languages evolve words for colors in a predictable pattern. Here is the wikipedia entry. So that some languages don’t have words for red/blue/green. They just start with cool/dark or warm/light. The next move up the chain or color words is ALWAYS RED. Red? I don’t get it. Maybe the significance of this color for our brains explains its use as a universal symbol of warning, caution, or stop. (see also this for more weirdness)

There are also a whole bunch of other weird things in this book and maybe, if I can think of a reason to put them in future posts, I will.

Again, this fits with my broad hypothesis on this blog that science, since its chewed through the easy problems, is now running about against the hard problems, and so far, for the really hard problems (language, consciousness, ridiculously advanced physics), all its done is show us JUST HOW HARD THEY ARE. The lesson is that for now, science is re-enchanting the world and making us familiar with just how incredible everything that goes on really is. I take heart in this richness.


4 Responses to “Linguistics”

  1. 1 thomas
    October 27, 2010 at 5:44 am

    hey jordan! great post. would you mind sharing the title/author of the textbook you discuss? thanks,

    • 2 questionbeggar
      October 27, 2010 at 5:55 am

      Hey Tom, glad you pop in to this blog! The name of the book is Foundations of Language by Ray Jackendoff. It’s kind of technical actually, not nearly as fun or accessible as Stephen Pinker’s the language instinct (but knowing you, you’ve already go through that one).

      • 3 thomas
        October 30, 2010 at 7:09 pm

        thanks jordan. i haven’t read pinker’s book but a technical treatment is what i’m looking for. i take it mr. jackenoff is your professor? and commerce the foundation of his language.

      • 4 questionbeggar
        October 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm

        O ok my bad. Yea Jackendoff is not actually my professor, but he’s in the department here at Tufts. The class I’m in is about metaphysics but we started with some linguistics to help us start to see some of the issues. One of his big points is about idioms and he expands their existence into an elaborate architecture for how language works. His language is not mainly commerce (I’m not sure), but his book is burly nonetheless.

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